The AFC U-23 Championship is one where players can make their mark on before going to the big one: senior national team football. However, many of the players this year are already seniors for their respective national team, which may show the lack of components to form an experienced squad (Syria, Yemen) or just downright talent.
We give you an expert Middle Eastern look at the best players to watch, and why.
Position: LB – LW | Club: Al-Sadd
Having being a key part of Al-Sadd and Qatar national team setup for the best part of four years, it is sometimes easy to forget Abdelkarim Hassan is just 22 years old. The athletic left back will captain The Maroons at home and will want to lift his first piece of silverware for the nation. One of the early graduates of the famed Aspire Academy, Hassan opted to continue his progress at home with Qatar’s most successful side, Al-Sadd, unlike many of his colleagues who now ply their trade for Qatar owned Eupen in the Belgian second division. This decision has so far proved the right one with the defender lifting the 2011 AFC Champions League. He then established himself as a regular international and now has more than 40 senior caps to his name. Solid in the tackle, the Qatar U-23 captain possesses great pace and athleticism which helps his frequent marauding runs down the left flank. A self-confessed disciple of the Roberto Carlos school, Hassan never shied away from trying his luck from distance and as the eyes focus on the more attacking players in Doha, Abdelkarim’s experience and ability will prove a vital weapon for the hosts in their pursuit of a spot in Rio2016. -WJ
Position: CAM | Club: Al-Sadd
If Akram Afif is expected to pump in the goals for Qatar, it will be Ali Asad who will wield the magic wand and set it all up. The midfield maestro has been getting rave reviews ever since he stepped up from the Al-Sadd youth ranks and made his mark with the senior team. Although he made 7 appearances in the league winning campaign of 2012-13, it was 2014 that came to be known as his breakout year. His displays with Al-Sadd led to international call-ups and Asad wasted no time in getting down to business. First he starred for the Qatar B team at the WAFF Championship, picking up the Best Player award before turning in a crucial performance when the senior NT won the Gulf Cup in Riyadh. His rise has continued in 2015; he netted a hattrick against Bhutan in the World Cup/Asian Cup qualifiers while also becoming the go-to man in the Al-Sadd midfield alongside Xavi Hernandez. With lots of top level experience already under his belt, the 22 year old Asad is now one of the four senior players in the Qatar Olympic team. Going into Tuesday’s match against China, the young lads of Qatar will be looking to him to be an inspiration. -AH
Position: CAM – RW – LW – ST | Club: KAS Eupen [loan]
Without a doubt, the main man for Qatar at the AFC U-23 Championship will be Akram Afif. With a pair of quick and tricky feet alongside intelligent finishing, expect him to be a handful for opposing defences. The 19-year forward has been raising eyebrows with a series of impressive displays that has accompanied his rise from the Aspire Academy age group teams. Coming from a footballing family, with both father and brother having played in Qatar, Afif has had a name to live up to. But with the way things are turning out, it seems he will take on the mantle of the family’s best before he’s even 23. Aspire recognized his potential early on and sent him to Villareal and Sevilla to fine-tune his skills. It was in 2014 that Afif actually hogged the headlines with four goals in Qatar’s successful AFC U-19 Championship campaign, including the winner against DPR Korea in the final. He then moved to the Aspire-owned Belgian second division side KAS Eupen, marking his debut with a goal before making further impressive appearances over the year. His rise has been such that he has already been called up to the Qatar senior team and went on to get a goal and an assist on his debut against Bhutan. 2015 also saw Afif play at the U20 World Cup and although Qatar crashed out at the group stage, he managed to score against Senegal. In October, he finished as top scorer with 4 goals in the WAFF U-23 Championship. -AH
Position: DM – CB – CM | Club: Esteghlal
Cheshmi is the captain of Iran U-23s national team and is thought of very highly by the coaching staff at club and international level. A defensive midfielder by trait, he can also play at centre back and central midfielder. His leadership skills alongside his high intelligence makes him a crucial player for this side, he is an ever-present figure and gives his team balance by sitting in front of the back four and giving security to his defenders. His composure on the ball makes him a vital part of any offensive move and he’ll be at the heart of everything for this Iran side. -SS
Mohammad Reza Akhbari
Position: GK | Club: Tractor Sazi
Every team needs a good goalkeeper to succeed and Iran have a great number one to rely on when the tournament comes. The 22 year old has had plenty of first team experience as he’s spent the last two seasons playing regular football for Saipa and Tractor Sazi. His performances have made him one of the best keepers in the Persian Gulf Pro League, which has prompted a few call ups to the Iran’s senior team. At 190cm, he is more than capable to command his area. He has been part of the Iran youth setup for a long time so the coaching staff will have full belief in him as he goes into the tournament high in confidence. -SS
Amir Arsalan Motahari
Position: ST | Club: Naft Tehran
This young striker defines the role of a classic “poacher”. He grabbed the attention in the 2014/15 season when his goals helped Naft Tehran qualify from the ACL group as well finishing 3rd in the domestic league. He was given the “best newcomer” award at the end of the season. He is a smart finisher who comes alive in the box, if he gets the right service he can be one of the deadliest strikers in this tournament. Iran will hope he can carry his great goal scoring tally (12 goals in 17 caps) for the U23s side as they push for an Olympics qualification. -SS
Position: CAM – ST | Club: Al-Dhafra (UAE)
Omar Khribin is arguably one of the best players in this tournament, well, for Middle Eastern teams at the very least. His rise has been fantastic, starting off at Al-Wahda in 2003 at the age of 9 years old and lasting with the club until 2011 before playing in the Iraqi Premier League. That is where he became the star he is today, starting off with Quwa Al-Jawiya before ending 2015 with Al-Minaa Al-Basri and leaving the league as top scorer.
He made his big move just a week ago to Al-Dhafra in the United Arab Emirates, playing a sole game before travelling to Doha and catching up with his teammates in the Olympic squad. He arrived in Doha with high morale after scoring on his debut against the biggest club in the U.A.E and one of the region’s top clubs: Al-Ain.
Omar Khribin may be remembered for his double against Singapore a few months ago, where he scored a 93rd minute winner for Syria in the World Cup Qualifiers. He excelled in that match as a false 10, which is the role he often plays in for club and country. But, Khribin is no stranger to playing up front especially as his physical and technical abilities allow him to thrive with his teammates; most notably Osama Aomry and Mahmoud Al-Mawas. -HF
Position: RW – LW | Club: Riffa (BHR) [loan] | Al-Arabi (KUW) [parent club]
Born on the 1st of January in 1993 (sharing the same birthdate with 5 other players in the team!) Mahmoud Al-Mawas has already earned a blend of experience from the region’s leagues. Like any true “Hamasni” (born in the Syrian city of Homs), Al-Mawas went through the ranks of successful Al-Karamah in Syria that had the likes of Firas Al-Khatib and Mohammad Qwayed as part of the club.
Al-Mawas is a right winger by trade, using his creative abilities more so than your traditional winger like abilities to beat his man. Wall passes, drifting into the centre and even pushing the left back deeper to allow right back Alaa Al-Shibli space on the right are some of his tasks on the field which he excels in. He did exactly that in the Bahraini Clasico against Muharraq:
The partnership between Khribin and Al-Mawas is going to be of high quality due to their time playing together, especially with the good form that they’ve been producing for their clubs too. The Syria team is no doubt one of the stronger teams in the tournament, and now full backs will have to contain the vibrant Al-Mawas too. -HF
Amro Midani is a strong, calm defender for the Syrian Olympic Team and will look to lead the defensive line in the absence of the experienced players who played in the national team. He’s played with Humaid Mido and Omar Khribin at Al-Minaa in Iraq, showing how far the Syrian team goes in terms of chemistry.
He’s only 21 but he’s rational and intelligent, as opposed to being rash and aggressive. He’s one of the better defenders in the Iraqi Premier League at such a young age and he will continue to grow – this tournament being the ideal platform for him to build from. He’s also a product of one of the best youth academies in Syria, Al-Wahda Damascus.
His large afro will certainly grab your attention but watch out for his performances and how he stabilizes the Syrian defence line, who will expect the likes of Arsalan Motahari and Akram Afif. -HF
Position: LW | Club: Al-Ittihad
Fahad Al-Muwallad is more of a player to watch rather than the leading star in this team, and the reason for this is that he may be considered overrated by opposition fans and Al-Ittihad fans themselves. He can either be a frustrating winger who wastes chances, or a deadly forward who will punish defenders. Fahad Al-Muwallad, the Arabian Raheem Sterling?
One thing you cannot take away from the lad is his shooting on its day. Whether it is a bicycle kick, a lob or a powerful long shot straight into the top corner, Fahad Al-Muwallad never fails to surprise you. But placing all hope on him is detrimental, as the weight goes on his small shoulders. When tasked to lead the team recently against Al-Ahli Jeddah in the Crown Prince Cup semi-final, he failed to produce anything worth mentioning.
But, pair him up with Abdulfattah Assiri and Abdulrahman Al-Ghamdi in a competition for youngsters – expect him to excel. -HF
Position: RM | Club: Al-Ittihad
Dubbed the “Messi of Saudi Arabia”, Abdulfattah Assiri is one of the most underrated players in the region and rightly so. Technically gifted, weaving past players like the legend himself at times, it’s going to be interesting how he will play a role in this squad especially that Mustafa Bassas occupies the same role. However, both can operate in the centre if needed.
Assiri is often the creative hub in his team, and he is usually dangerous in all positions. That’s right, whether you find him on the flanks, deeper in the centre, located in the half spaces or even in the box, he will create chances for you. His ability to move between players in tight spaces is relatively on a good level although still a work in progress as he needs to place more emphasis on having a smoother final touch to escape cleanly.
Nevertheless, in terms of eye candy, Assiri is arguably the #1 on that list to watch in this tournament. -HF
Position: CM – RM – RW – RB | Club: Al-Ahli Jeddah
When the Saudis kick off their U-23 tournament against Thailand, they will be looking at Mustafa Al-Bassas as one of the most senior players in the team. Al-Ahli’s 22 years old man has been in the heart of the Jeddah based club’s unbeaten run of 48 games since 2014. The midfielder first broke into the first team in 2012 under Czech tactician Karel Jarolim, often coming from the bench but gradually established himself alongside Walid Bakhshwin in central midfield. Bassas is also capable of playing out wide as a right back or a right winger. His energy and skill on the ball enables him to play an important role in the team’s attacking play. Yet, his final product needs improvement as evident by his poor return of one assist and no goals from 8 appearances this season and a meagre return of just 4 goals in 2015. Already a full international with 15 senior caps to his name, Bassas is yet to break his international duck. Nevertheless, those stats don’t paint the full picture when it comes to Bassas’ attacking contribution, he often sprays passes to the attacking wide men from deep or ventures in Di Maria-esque runs down the middle to break opponents defences, and despite his unassuming physique (172 cm), the Jeddah-born Ahli youth product does not shy from a tackle and often relishes a midfield battle. His combativeness and forward looking mentality will be key if the Green Falcons are to make it to Rio 2016. -WJ